I like Scandal (2012-present) because I can’t think of a better way than giving my brain a luscious sugary treat than sitting down to watch Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) do anything whatsoever. My only complaint: I just don’t find President Grant (Tony Goldwyn) attractive. And after two years of mulling over the problem, I’ve decided that it’s because his eyebrows aren’t thick enough.

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That’s right. Of all the inane, random things to write about, I’m writing about men’s eyebrows. (And it’s not just Fitz. The whole show is littered with men with light eyebrows!)

So, at the risk of embarrassing myself further, let me offer a visual history of thick brows that have titillated me throughout my personal life (in rough chronological order as I discovered them):

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Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

Alan Bates, in case you don't recognize him

Alan Bates, in case you don’t recognize him

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George Clooney from the ER days

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Ahh. That feels better. Back to more serious feminist work soon, I promise.

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Kathleen Hanna Ian MacKaye

It sounds silly now, of course. When someone starts up in ValSpeak, she sounds stupid. But let me explain how wrong and simplistic that is. (I’m going to argue that Riot Grrrl was born of Valley Girl. Just wait till you seen how I get there!)

It didn’t sound stupid if you were younger than, say, 15 in the early 80s, when the Valley Girl accent began circulating on shows like Square Pegs and the classic Moon Zappa song, and thence into schoolyards everywhere. That’s how Kathleen Hanna — revered feminist lead singer of riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and now The Julie Ruin — explains her adoption of the accent while a pre-teen in Maryland. “We wanted to be the kinds of girls who had credit cards,” she remembers in the terrific documentary The Punk Singer (2013), now streaming on Netflix. To her, it sounded posh, the voice of rich girls.

One of her friends adds that it just goes to show you that you be “just like some Valley Girl and you still can be smart and have feminist ideas and should be listened to.” (Another perk: watching this doc puts the song “Rebel Girl” in your head for days.)

I was never as dedicated to ValSpeak as Hanna — she still talks that way — but I can attest to its appeal back then:

It sounded smart. I know, right? But Valley Girls were fast talkers, quick-witted, opinionated; and they pronounced everything perfectly in those clipped accents. They had a lot to say. Let us not forget Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in Clueless (1995), a second-generation Valley Girl whose speeches regularly inspired applause from her classmates. If you were young, it was easy to hear this as smart — as girls figuring out what they had to say by holding forth.

It was funny. Moon Zappa’s song was a spoof on the dimwitted female mall shoppers out in the deeply suburban San Fernando Valley (much farther from LA than you might imagine if you’re not from there) — and I’m pretty sure we all understood that. But those who heard this only as mocking of the girls were missing something. To me it sounded self-mocking, with all those Ohmigod!s and I’m so sure!s. Girls talked this way in part because they knew they were being funny, and they got a charge from being part of the fun.

It was a dialect unique to girls. And therefore it became a part of girl culture — one of the many ways that girls created a world unto themselves. Sure, it had tinges of sameness and uniformity, but different girl groups innovated endlessly on its basic elements, always developing new ways to speak to each other and to cloak their girl-talk from outsiders.

(I never heard the Valley Guy version of this talk in the same way; it lacked the private club aspects of Valley Girl talk. But maybe that’s because I wasn’t a part of those clubs.)

It allowed you to do fun things with your voice. Valley girls ran the gamut of the vocal scales; just a single Ohmigod! required the speaker to cock one’s voice up a couple of octaves midway and then allow the voice to collapse back to earth of its own weight. The accent is partly so distinctive not for what girls say than for the kooky musical sound of their rambling sentences, like a bouncy New Wave pop song of that era. Doing that stuff with your voice required practice, just like learning to dance like Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Gos.

The documentary about Kathleen Hanna makes a point of discussing her Valley Girl accent because it seems incongruous — how is it that such a diehard feminist — a woman who scrawled INCEST on her chest, screamed into the microphone, sang about sexual abuse, and changed the masculine culture of those punk nightclubs — could speak in a way that undermines the seriousness of her words? After all, long ago I learned to stop talking that way in order to be taken seriously.

But that stereotype has been twisted by time and by the ongoing cultural sense that anything girls do must be stupid. Valspeak wasn’t just a marker of stupid girls saying stupid things. Nor was it a supreme moment of girl stupidity that had to be repudiated by the Riot Grrrls of the 90s.

Let me say something controversial: Riot Grrrl was a movement that stood on the shoulders of Valley Girl. With Valley Girl, we learned to talk — quickly, smartly, to each other. It was of a piece with the dribs and drabs of female rock music of the era (The Pretenders, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, the Go-Gos, Blondie, Annie Lennox, Siouxie Sioux, etc.) that had a lot to say about being female.

Could Hanna’s overt feminism have been far behind?

Sigh. The only downside of watching The Punk Singer is realizing how far we’ve fallen since the glory days of Riot Grrrl. I ♥ Hanna. Rebel girl, you’re the queen of my world.

A snippet of this duet was played this week in Cyndi Lauper’s terrific interview on NPR’s “On the Media” (worth listening to/ watching in its entirety), and its jaw-dropping pleasures — what Cyndi can do to keep up with a singer as breathtaking as Patti LaBelle — gave me such pleasure that I got all sentimental for the music, not to mention women’s clothing of the era. You can see here, with Cyndi’s hat and jacket, that beautiful moment in time that made possible Madonna’s great outfits from Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), which I’ve got to watch again if for no other reason than Aidan Quinn at his most beautiful.

So watch, listen, and tell me if it doesn’t bring tears to your eyes for all the right reasons.

tumblr_m0sgcsmwac1r1c3jbo1_500So far in my Female Buddy Movies mini-marathon, I’ve covered four key aspects of the genre: the wedding/bridesmaid movie (Revenge of the Bridesmaids), the Very Pink/ girlie comedy (Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), the boarding school dramedy (The Hairy Bird), and the field-defining roadtrip movie (Thelma and Louise). Clearly what we need next is a female buddy picture set in the workplace.

After all, isn’t it always the workplace where we become feminists — because there we witness what horrors still await us in a man’s world?

gettyimages_159836102When Nine to Five originally opened in 1980, I was too young to be fully conscious of its cultural reception, but my hazy memory recalls a lot of hubbub about this overtly feminist comedy. Sure enough, Vincent Canby’s original New York Times review calls it “a militant cry for freedom” that waves “the flag of feminism as earnestly as Russian farmers used to wave the hammer-and-sickle at the end of movies about collective farming.”

That statement is so over-the-top that it makes me want someone to write a cultural history of this film to explain how anyone could describe it as “militant,” but this film is still so full of comedic satisfaction that I want to eat it.

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I mean, look at Judy Bernly (Fonda), the divorcée whose husband just left her for his secretary, and who has just shown up for her first day of work at Consolidated Companies. “We’re gonna need a special locker for the hat,” says Violet (Lily Tomlin) in a sardonic aside as she shows Judy the ropes. She looks more like a 1948 working woman than one in 1980, and everyone producing this film surely knew that; her comical naïvete is meant to reassure us that she’s no strident feminist.

Nor is the curvaceous Doralee (Dolly Parton), who has put up with their boss Mr. Hart (Dabney Coleman) and his sexual harassment for years. As he pretends to apologize, she says sweetly, “Oh Mr. Hart, you didn’t make a mistake. You see I’ll just have to remember to check, the next time I’m asked to go to work at a convention that there is a convention going on.” Little does she know that the whole office believes she really is sleeping with him, and that it’s all due to his loose lips.

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Violet’s most likely to mount a militant campaign, but she’s been waiting for a promotion from Hart for weeks — and she made up her mind to be a good girl in the meantime.

But he gives the promotion to a man rather than to Violet, and she finally loses it. “The company needs a man in this position,” he explains. “Clients would rather deal with men when it comes to figures.”

Violet is livid. “Oh, now we’re getting at it. I lose a promotion because of some idiot prejudice. The boys in the club are intimidated, and you’re so intimidated by any woman who doesn’t sit at the back of the bus.” Unmoved, Hart simply responds with a “Spare me the women’s lib crap, okay?” This is what the film does honestly — shows what women suffer in the workplace, with less-qualified men puffing and preening and taking credit for their work. When Violet reveals that Hart has let the whole office believe he’s sleeping with Doralee, the three women storm off to a bar.

Picture 9Then they get spectacularly stoned (ah, remember the good old days, when ordinary non-stoner movies featured scenes of the characters getting baked?) and spin out fantasies about what they’d do to Hart if they could.

But that’s the thing. They only fantasize about giving Hart a taste of his own medicine, or hunting him down with a gun, or popping him out the window of his skyscraper office. If this film rises to “militant” it does so simply by showing the women’s rage alongside their helplessness to change anything. They can fantasize all they like and have achieved only a comforting, marijuana-stoked friendship — and the satisfaction of having told Hart he’s a “sexist egotistical lying hypocritical bigot” in their dreams at least.

9to5still3Ultimately, of course, they take a far more aggressive revenge on Hart, but only as a result of accident, misinformation, and misadventure. Even when they finally kidnap him to keep him from sending them to jail, discover he’s guilty of embezzlement, and seek out proof, the scenes have a goofy, picaresque feel.

But the women achieve something important while they’ve got Hart strung up and away from the office nevertheless: they make their workplace more humane. With Doralee’s ability to forge his signature, they create a blanket equal pay policy, a day care center, give employees the ability to work flexible hours, and allow some workers to share a full-time job. Less radically, they also paint the place and grant everyone permission to personalize workspaces with photos.

MSDNITO EC005Hart ultimately gets his due, of course, but only because he once again takes credit for their ideas.

So this is “militant,” circa 1980: a film in which none of the women becomes CEO or chops off anyone’s balls, but instead perks the place up with some cheery paint and secretly improves the office’s efficiency by 20% without getting credit for it. See what I mean? We need some kind of time capsule to go back to find how someone like Canby could find himself so alarmed by the implications of female empowerment in Nine to Five. I wonder how Canby might have responded to all the whoop-ass in Charlie’s Angels (2000)?

fee1604aa57949107e69d195604b3425Don’t get me wrong: I love this film and can understand perfectly how its campy delights, like John Waters’ cult classic Hairspray (1988), gave it such a healthy revival as a Broadway musical later on. All this huffing and puffing has to do with its apparent reputation at the time as being a feminist milestone — a reputation that’s difficult to reconstruct now. Maybe in 30 years we’ll shake our heads at the hubbub over 2011’s Bridesmaids (whoa! women can be funny? and men will file out to see a film about women?) in the same way.

In the end, it’s probably a remarkable thing that a film compared to Soviet propaganda in 1980 can look so utterly restrained in 2013. For my own part, I’m going to hunt down a way to slip in “a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” as a descriptor into one of my conversations over the next two or three days — simply as a tribute to Violet, Doralee, and Judy.

I’m going to say it without shame: Moonstruck remains a goofy and immensely pleasurable ensemble film 25 years after its original release.

Here’s what I never quite realized on my previous viewings: it’s entirely about sex amongst middle-aged and senior men and women. Yet unlike the recent spate of Films About Older People (Hope SpringsThe Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), it doesn’t announce a target audience. Rather, Moonstruck folds it all into a comedy that still works so long as you’re not determined to take any of it very seriously — and there’s nary a teenager or 20-something to distract us from all the older folks happily boinking. It’s kind of great.

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When my mom saw the film back in the 80s, she pronounced it “stupid.” (She has no tolerance for frothy films.) So let me ask you to set aside your skepticism about silly films like this one. Yet despite its embrace of the goofy — as well as its over-the-top, romanticized Italian Brooklyn — the cast is great and the jokes remain really good. This film that isn’t trying to be anything more than diverting.

So it’s kind of delightful to realize that as the 1980s was specializing in teen-oriented sex comedies, this film let older people have and want sex.

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Moonstruck is also a Cinderella story — in which the dowdy, grey-haired, humorless accountant Loretta (Cher) lets herself flirt with real passion and love for the first time since her husband died (and then she visits the beauty parlor!). She just got engaged to the foolish, 50-something Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) because … well, because she wants to change her bad luck in life. No, she doesn’t love him. No, this isn’t going to be a passionate marriage. As Johnny heads off to visit his dying mother in Sicily, we know perfectly well that he won’t last long as her fiancé.

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Loretta moves through the same grooves of life she’s inhabited for years, such that even when she meets Johnny’s long estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage), she doesn’t know what to do in the face of all his rage at his brother, whom he blames for maiming his hand. (Actually, one of my favorite scenes is in the basement of the Cammareri Bros. Bakery, where Ronny shovels coal into the ovens, and where Cage gets to do his kookiest and most interesting acting: “I lost my hand! I lost my girl! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride!” You can see he learned a lot from making Raising Arizona earlier that year.)

So she takes him upstairs and cooks him a steak and lets him cool down.

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Jeez, she’s stuck in a rut. Nothing exemplifies it more than when she attempts to diagnose Ronny’s misery while he eats his steak. “You can’t see what you are. I can see everything. You are a wolf,” she pronounces — a wolf who chewed off its own foot in order to escape a bad relationship with a disloyal woman. Sure, she sounds definitive, but it’s not even an original thought; she heard the same words out of the mouths of the bickering owners of the Sweetheart Liquor Store the night before.

Well, the joke’s on her: he sweeps her off her feet — yes, literally — and they spend the rest of the day in bed. Nor are they the only ones gettin’ it on. So are Loretta’s aunt and uncle (pictured above). So is Loretta’s adulterous father. So is the 50-something lecherous NYU professor (John Mahoney), whose girlfriends dump him at the little Italian joint where Loretta’s miserable mother, Rose (Olympia Dukakis) tries to get a quiet bite and mull over the fact that she has a philandering husband.

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OMG, Dukakis is so good in this role. She won Best Supporting Actress that year, of course. What I like best is her little moans of comic misery. (Note to self: issue little moans more often.)

Now, one can argue that my premise is off-base — how can this be a film about sex for older people if we have the youthful, sweaty Nicolas Cage decorating the screen for us with all his chest hair? I was surprised to find he was only 24 when he made this film.

Cher after her Cinderella makeover just in time for a night at the opera

Cher after her Cinderella makeover just in time for a night at the opera

In my own defense, I think few would have read him as so young. Not only was he supposed to be the brother of the 56-yr-old Aiello, but Cage had appeared in several parts that had made him appear older (Peggy Sue Got MarriedRaising Arizona), so contemporary audiences were used to reading him as older. I had pegged Cage’s character here as in his mid-30s. (I like it that he seems to have been on a roll with older women as he made these films: Cher [age 41], Holly Hunter [age 30], Kathleen Turner [age 33]; this says a lot about his particular version of appeal at the time.)

Speaking of Cage, have you played Nicolas Cage Roulette? This site will randomly call up a Cage film via Netflix for you. I got Adaptation (2002), a true classic. But be warned: you might get one of the stinkers.

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The film also upholds real relationships rather than impractical and/or absurd ones, in large part by giving us a glimpse of Mahoney’s ridiculous professor who insists on dating his students. “She’s too young for you,” Loretta and Rose each (independently) pronounce about his affairs.

This statement — delivered twice, with the same affect, to great comic effect — encompasses less finger-wagging than you might expect, and shows how neatly the film was directed. Rather than sound preachy, the women simply mean to convey bluntly that adults should know better when they enter into impossible relationships. It’s less moralistic than matter-of-fact.

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Which is funny, considering how impractical is Loretta’s affair with Ronny — he of the wooden fingers, he of the passion for tragic opera, he of the crazy “gypsy eyes.” When the sardonic Rose asks, “Do you love him, Loretta?” and she says, “I love him awful, Ma,” Rose can only say, “That’s too bad.” You know they’ll make each other crazy as much as they make each other happy. 

But then we already knew that, didn’t we? — from the earlier scene when Ronny tells her:

Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is. And I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice — it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed.

I know: goofy as shit. I love it.

 

Starting roundabout November 15, all I can fantasize about is dedicating a full day to reading a novel and maybe making a batch of holiday cookies. Instead, my classes ended this week and I am now staring down the gun barrel of all the committee work I agreed to do. Instead of reading deliciously long 19th-c. novels over break, that is.

In addition to grading all those bluebooks, coming up with final grades, and dealing with a couple of problem-child students, I will spend my time doing the following:

  • reading the last of three dissertations and writing assessments of all of them for a meeting 1 hour away, and taking place at 8am Tuesday
  • reading 80 assistant professor applications with writing samples of 25 pgs each in time for a search committee on Wednesday
  • reading a book manuscript for a press
  • writing a book review for a journal, because if I don’t finish it my head will roll
  • …and further down the to-do list: reading 3 dissertation chapters by 2 grad students desperate to finish their degrees next semester

You see? And I thought the semester was “over.”barchestertowers

Which makes it all the more heartbreaking that I still spend a good deal of my time these days fantasizing about how I’ll spend winter break lying on a sofa. Here’s how it goes: in my fantasy I am reading not a dissertation but the Anthony Trollope novel Barchester Towers (because is there anything better than a 19th-c. novel that reads like a house on fire?), and then I flip on the telly to watch the epic, 160-minute film Ran by Akira Kurisawa (1985). And for blog research I have the new book Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan.

Naturally, in my fantasy I also revive my recently-abandoned regimens of exercising, cooking actual food, and getting enough sleep.

And oh yeah, my own research/writing. Snort.

Lesson to the ladies: make a list of all the extra work you’re doing, and keep it on the wall next to your desk. Then ask yourself, can I do this AND all my teaching AND give myself time to read Barchester Towers. Why? Because the 1983 BBC miniseries Barchester Chronicles has a young, hot Alan Rickman as the officious Rev. Slope, which to me says MUST SEE. !!!!!

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Charlotte Rampling was breathtakingly beautiful as a young woman. She is now 66, still gorgeous, and vexingly still wears same dress size, still appears in bathing suits on screen. Angelina Maccarone’s documentary explores a woman who has let us look at her onscreen for nearly 50 years.

She has never made it easy, specializing in difficult, hard characters with complicated motives. The bitch in Georgy Girl (1966), the wife who falls in love with a chimpanzee in Max (1986), or — most infamously — the concentration camp survivor who carries on a strange relationship with a Nazi guard in The Night Porter (1974); all these parts made her inscrutable, kept us from liking her. Famously, her co-star Dirk Bogarde called it “The Look”: those distinctive, hooded eyes that achieve so much without giving much away. As she’s grown older and her face acquired more character, she has acquired a capacity to convey not just disdain but a degree of self-loathing so all-encompassing that it chills.

What we see of Rampling onscreen is a mystery of minimalist emotion that nevertheless somehow smacks you in the face. About her role in the new film, The Eye of the Storm (2012), David Denby writes, “Speaking in not much more than a whisper, [Rampling] is magnetically evil, with occasional flashes of a complex sensibility and poetic invention — often just a flutter of her eyes or a strategic turn of her head.” How does she do that?

 

In Charlotte Rampling: The Look she explains that early on she learned she was exceptionally photogenic; yet she had to learn how to survive the constant appearance of the camera before her. “Exposure is huge,” she explains. “You have to find a way not to feel invaded all the time, by lenses, by people looking all the time. If you are to give anything worthwhile of yourself, you have to feel completely exposed.”

Perversely, Maccarone’s documentary begs you to read in between the lines. It does not seek exposure but something more allusive, abstract — the passing of time, the inevitability of change. She shows Rampling in conversation with old friends and collaborators, conversations that allow Maccarone to trace those earlier appearances on screen and in photographs. At times, Rampling even revisits old sets like a staircase she rambled down in Georgy Girl or a room where she danced, bare breasted, to a Marlene Dietrich tune in The Night Porter.

 

Maccarone never asks how Rampling feels about her sister’s suicide back in the 60s, nor about her relationships with men, nor whether she is close to her children. In avoiding those gossipy realms so stereotypical of “women’s lives” as produced by Hollywood, the director clearly wants to make a point about respecting the actor’s craft, her career. This is a film about Rampling’s achievements, one of which is the flowering of her ability to play ambivalent, morally questionable, and occasionally impossible characters like Sarah Morton, above, in François Ozon’s terrific Swimming Pool (2003).

And yet I completed the documentary still feeling that the director hadn’t done justice to Rampling’s skills; I think I wanted a more explicit directorial hand in showing us, as Denby did in that great quote above, what Rampling can do with her face. But Maccarone stays out of it, allowing us to arrive at our own conclusions. Perhaps rather than see this documentary one ought to see Under the Sand (2000) or even her small, despicable part in Melancholia (2011) instead. And yet for the unadulterated pleasure of seeing La Rampling, well, it’s streaming on Netflix.